Using lean to take on COVID-19
Brad Cairns is the senior principal at the Center for Lean Learning and Quantum Lean. He also runs a woodworking business called Best Damn Doors in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada, where he puts lean thinking into action every day. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].

A common phrase in the lean community is: “We are practicing lean.” I think this likely derived from the fact that once you start, it never ends, and the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. Defining it as practice makes perfect sense.

At the Best Damn Doors manufacturing facility in St. Thomas, Ontario. We were midway through our daily morning meeting when I had a revelation that hit me like a freight train. But before I tell you what that was, let's rewind to the beginning of the story.

On or about March 15th I was talking with one of my favorite lean maniac buddies over in Germany. Michale Althof of yellotools. said the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping Europe, shutting down businesses and causing medical supply shortages everywhere. His words were, “It’s coming your way.”

“What can we do?”

Given this pandemic was imminent, I gathered my entire team and asked the million-dollar question: “What are we going to do about it.” The conversation wasn’t a long one, despite not having a giant money tree out back we could easily just prune, we injected the first shot of lean thinking: “Use our heads, not our wallets.” The decision was unanimous, we were going to do what was right, not what we could afford. Out of all the items required by health workers, the one we could contribute was the plastic face shields. We immediately ordered two truckloads of plastic and began rapid prototyping.

At first people thought we were crazy, we were not in the foam and plastic business, and to be honest, knew relatively little about it. But here is the major difference between a “normal” company and a Kaizen (continuous improvement) company. I knew that even if our first design wasn’t great, within days, we would develop the best design, within a week we would have great processes to produce, and if it lasted a month we would be able to substantially reduce the cost.

What’s the risk?

From where I was sitting, the risk was relatively low. Don’t go thinking you can explain this to anyone other than a fellow lean thinker. Your bankers will just think you're crazy and your friends will say, “Boy, that guy sure likes to take risks.”

So what happened? Our first prototype was received well; however, soliciting rapid feedback from end users, collaborating with my German counterparts and incorporating improvement suggestions from my team, we were able to revise the design, prototype and begin production of the new design within two days!

At first we built 50 shields per day, then 100, then 500. Currently as I type this, our throughput is 2,000 per day, all with the same crew! You heard that right. We have not hired even one extra person. By next week we are ramping up to 10,000 per day (albeit we will have to hire a few people for that milestone).

Working with competitors

Since we launched this venture, we have actually connected with some of our competitors in the door industry to help battle COVID-19. Can you imagine? A month ago we were doing battle, and today we are collaborating. The first company that joined us was Allstyle Cabinet Doors. The president, Drew Gall, called me and said, “How can we help?” We developed a brand called Woodworkers Unite and a web site ( We have since brought onboard more companies to help us. Through this network we have all benefited beyond measure. I’m learning much needed marketing skills, while in trade for some manufacturing best practices.

Crucial moment

Back to the thought that hit me in our morning meeting. I was wondering if all our years of practicing lean wasn’t just us practicing for this moment. Years of preparation, learning, teaching and growing people, so that when something happened we could be ready. The look on my face must have sent a message, the person leading the meeting stopped and asked what I was thinking. I shared my thought and asked my team why they thought we could go from relatively dusty MDF door production to pristine hospital grade face shields in under a week.

The conversation nearly brought me to tears. We talk about our company vision every single day. The vision is simple: “To improve life through the manufacturing of the best damn doors and the application of lean thinking.” Most days, let’s face it, people recite it, and probably don’t think too much about it. But when it was time to take action, they said , “We could live our vision! To improve life, not just ours, but the lives of others.” They had a purpose greater than a paycheck.

I asked about the design, development and production of a new totally non-related product to what we normally produce. How did we pull that off? They said, “It was just change, and we are changing around here so often that it wasn’t a miracle, it was just another day.”

If you have a lean organization, that is reality; change is literally a daily activity. I assure you it is a ton of work to keep humans in the state of mind that change is good. It’s pretty easy to fall back into old habits and resist change.

Process improvements

What about the process improvements? How could we go from 50 units per day to 2,000? It was agreed that three major factors were at play:

1)            Daily learning about waste at our morning meeting kept everyone on the same page and easily able to identify waste in the new process. 

2)            Having time each day to make improvements to the process

3)            Reporting accurate data each day using the production timers on the Quantum Lean website.  Each day we knew exactly how long it took per unit, and each team kept trying to beat their time from the day before. Just this week our packing crew went from 1 minute per bag to 22 seconds after starting to use the timer.

There is little doubt the rest of the lean toolbox was invaluable. Kanban (automatic reordering) streamlined the purchasing. SMED (single minute exchange of dies) reduced our changeover times on the machines.Single piece flow improved assembly and packaging lines.

Another absolutely amazing thing happened. When any company goes through a period of change, the faster it is, the harder it usually is. My team seemed to actually do the opposite. The more pressure that was on us, the more we pulled together. The government is giving out money for people to stay at home. It’s pretty easy not to come to work if you didn’t want to. Not one person at my factory stayed home on the government’s dime. We knew we would sink or swim together, and I believe this whole experience has made us a better company.

So, has our whole lean journey been practicing lean, or were we really just practicing for this moment?  Either way, I know without lean, there would be no way we could have made any of this possible.




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Protective Face Shields By WWU from See My Clients on Vimeo.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is a partner at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He puts lean thinking in action at My Door Factory, a cabinet door manufacturing business he founded in St. Thomas, Ontario. And he is also founder of Stolbek, a machinery manufacturer. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].